It is critical to provide a strong response to perpetrators that holds them to account, keeps them in view and encourages behaviour change, to enable victim survivor safety and wellbeing. Our companion report ‘Crisis Response to Recovery Model for Victim Survivors’ examines the progress in establishing an effective service system that meets the needs of victim survivors at their point(s) of crisis and supports their journey towards recovery. At the same time considerable work is being undertaken to reduce the incidences of family violence by holding perpetrators to account and actively working to change their behaviour through targeted interventions. Through this report, we have examined implementation progress in establishing an effective and joined-up service pathway for perpetrators and people using violence within the family. This included reviewing the availability and diversity of responses and interventions, and whether the necessary framework is in place to ensure their effectiveness.
These interventions are designed to encourage perpetrators to take responsibility for committing family violence, representing a significant shift away from a victim-blaming mentality of ‘why don’t they just leave?’ It was universally agreed that promoting victim survivors’ safety must always be the central goal of any work that occurs with perpetrators, as the CEO of Safe and Equal affirms:
Our services hear from survivors all the time that they don’t necessarily want the relationship to stop – they just want the violence to stop, and of course without perpetrator interventions, how’s that going to happen? We’re going to still need ongoing and sustainable victim survivor services because this issue continues to rise, as we can see, but we do need to up the game on perpetrator interventions.
As Family Safety Victoria clearly articulated to us, the reforms designed to address and respond to people who use violence within the family have sought to shift focus to the perpetrator in assessing and responding to family violence risk. The reforms have aimed to build a cohesive system in which government departments, the sector and the community work together to create shared accountability that stops perpetrators from committing further violence. Many parts of the system have a role in identifying family violence and holding perpetrators to account.
While we touch on the need for a system approach to perpetrator accountability in this report, our primary focus is on specialist responses that aim to drive behaviour change, with an emphasis on perpetrator interventions, and we accept that these aspects are part of a broader perpetrator reform program. We recognise that work occurring beyond the family violence and justice systems (including in child protection services, alcohol and drug treatment programs, mental health services and others) is not reflected in this report but is critical to establishing a true system-wide approach to perpetrator accountability.
Experts with a track record of delivering perpetrator interventions recognise that not all participants will be open to changing their behaviour, and that entrenched negative attitudes and patterns of abuse are
unlikely to disappear within a 20-week program. However, they believe that a proportion of those who use family violence can be motivated to start to change, and that supporting that process – along with concerted primary prevention efforts – is the way to get to the root cause of family violence.
The system must therefore encourage perpetrators to engage with interventions that can help them take responsibility for, and therefore change, their behaviour. Simultaneously, whether or not perpetrators take responsibility for their behaviour, the system must hold perpetrators to account for their use of violence. These concepts are captured in Box 1.
There are different pathways into perpetrator interventions (see Figure 1). The main pathways follow police attendance at a family violence incident, whereby the perpetrator is referred to The Orange Door and may also become engaged with the justice system. These pathways can lead to direct referrals into perpetrator services, although we note that engagement is not always mandatory, and even when it is, there may be access barriers. Perpetrators may also engage in help-seeking behaviour in an effort to address their use of violence. We understand that this behaviour is rare among perpetrators but acknowledge that there is an important opportunity for the range of services a perpetrator might engage with to encourage engagement with interventions.
Box 1: Internal versus external perpetrator accountability
To date, two different forms of perpetrator accountability have generally been recognised. The first is accountability that is externally imposed, so that men who use violence are held to account. The main mechanism by which this occurs is through the justice system. Perpetrators may become involved with the justice system following criminal incidents of domestic and family violence, or breaches of civil protection orders. At present, mechanisms for perpetrators to be held to account for their actions are not consistently embedded elsewhere in wider human services systems.
The second form of perpetrator accountability is one that is internally developed through men’s behaviour change programs, with the intention that men who use violence develop a sense of responsibility and commit to being accountable to their partners and children. This form of accountability involves cultivating an internal sense of responsibility for behaviour, rather than imposing external sanctions.
Accountability and responsibility do not always co-occur – in fact, they often do not. Perpetrators can be held accountable without necessarily taking personal responsibility for their behaviour.
Source: Adapted from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (2020): Improving accountability: The role of perpetrator intervention systems: Key findings and future directions (Research to policy and practice, 20/2020), p. 2.
Statistics on perpetrators in Victoria
This section (and Figure 2 following) offers a snapshot of key police statistics related to perpetrators in Victoria. We note that the real prevalence of family violence in Victorian communities may be much higher because police cannot identify every incident of family violence due to reluctance to report, victims not recognising their experience as family violence and neighbours being unlikely to overhear more subtle forms of family violence.
In the year 2020–21 Victoria Police recorded 93,440 family violence incidents involving 58,118 perpetrators. Seventy-five per cent of perpetrators were recorded as male, noting that the 25 per cent of perpetrators recorded as female will include cases where victim survivors were misidentified as perpetrators (see our previous report on this issue: Accurate identification of the predominant aggressor) and 30 per cent were repeat offenders (recorded as the respondent in two or more family violence incidents within the year). Police observed that mental health issues were likely present in 37 per cent of family violence incidents, alcohol in 22 per cent and other drugs in 16 per cent. Although these statistics may be useful as risk indicators, it is equally important to note that many people in our community experience these challenges, but they do not use violence towards their families. Family violence affects all sectors of society in Victoria, with most incidents involving perpetrators who were neither observed to be suffering from mental health issues or visibly affected by alcohol and other drugs; and up to 70 per cent of incidents involved a perpetrator who was reportedly employed. For the first time, reported family violence incidents against former intimate partners are almost at the same level as those against current partners. A police stakeholder suggested that COVID-19 restrictions may explain this trend, with perpetrators sitting at home and dwelling on past relationships.
Language in this report
We recognise that some service providers and communities prefer the term ‘person using family violence,’ but for consistency with the Royal Commission, this report uses the term ‘perpetrator’ to describe people who use or have used family violence. Family violence is deeply gendered, with men making up the majority of perpetrators, while victim survivors are overwhelmingly women and children. Though acknowledging this reality, we employ the gender-neutral terms ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim survivor’ throughout to be inclusive of all communities experiencing family violence.
Report scope and context
We acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already high level of pressure on the family violence sector due to high demand and workforce shortages. Many of the new perpetrator services – such as the specialised practice area at The Orange Door, accommodation pilots and court-mandated men’s behaviour change programs – were rolled out amid multiple restrictions. The findings and suggestions in our report must be taken in this context.
The complex issue of adolescents who use violence within their families or intimate partner relationships is not included in the scope of this report. That is not to say it is not an important area; it is critically important and deserves attention in its own right. We suggest that this issue should be the subject of a future dedicated analysis. 6